This weekend marked the birthday of the inventor of LSD. Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist, was known for his discovery of both the chemical synthesis process and psychoactive effects of the well-known psychedelic drug. For his achievements, he was named the top living genius, tied with the inventor of the World Wide Web, by The Telegraph in 2007. He would have been 107 years old on Saturday.
Hofmann was both the first to synthesize LSD in 1938 and, five years later, the first to consume it. While purifying the substance had had just produced, Hofmann accidentally absorbed traces of it, apparently through his fingertips. Soon afterwards, as noted in his book LSD: My Problem Child, he “perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors.”1
The next day, he deliberately took what turned out to be quite a high dose of the drug. This led to a terrifying experience in which “Everything in the room spun around, and the familiar objects and pieces of furniture assumed grotesque, threatening forms.” As he characterized it, “A demon had invaded me, had taken possession of my body, mind, and soul.” The family doctor, though, found nothing abnormal outside of “extremely dilated pupils.” Although initially afraid that he had seriously poisoned himself, Hofmann soon recovered from the experience with no treatment beyond two liters of milk.2
Despite its history in connection with the 1960s counterculture, LSD was initially valued not for recreational but rather for medical use. The drug caught the attention of some psychoanalysts, who believed that it allowed the release of repressed thoughts and memories in their patients, as well as suspending the usual influence of the ego.3 The Swiss pharmaceutical company Sandoz Laboratories, Hofmann’s employer at the time, began distributing the drug in 1947 under the name Delysid.
Early studies on more concrete problems showed promising results as well. Studies in the 1960s concerning alcoholism, for example, have recently been formally analyzed. Fifty-nine percent of patients who were given LSD showed a reduction in alcohol abuse, compared with 38% who were not. These benefits were maintained for at least six months from a single dose. Other research showed potential for LSD as a treatment for pain in patients at the end of life.
Unfortunately, in the wake of public hysteria and the ensuing prohibition of the drug, scientific research on LSD was abandoned. Recently, though, research has begun again. The drug has shown positive results in the treatment of anxiety in the terminally ill. A Swiss study of LSD for this purpose was just completed in 2011, and was the first human study done on the drug in at least 35 years.
Hofmann was also notable in connection with so-called “magic mushrooms.” Where two American pharmaceutical companies had attempted unsuccessfully to identify the active ingredients, Hofmann successfully isolated and tested the psychedelic components from samples of Psilocybe mexicana mushrooms. He named them psilocybin and psilocin.4
Such mushrooms have been used for centuries in traditional divination and healing rituals by certain indigenous peoples of Mexico, but it was not until 1955 that the first whites were permitted to consume them. R. Gordon Wasson was a banker, then vice-president of J. P. Morgan Co. He and his photographer had managed to gain the trust of some of the Mazatec people, and were admitted to a mushroom ceremony in which they were allowed to consume the fungi.5 His enthusiastic report of the experience did much to popularize “shrooms” in the US.
Hofmann pointed out that psilocybin and LSD were quite similar, both in chemical structure and psychological effects. The most notable difference is that the effects of psilocybin generally last for 6 hours or less, while those of LSD continue for up to 12 hours.6
Psilocybin, despite its absurd prohibition, shows definite potential for some of the same medicinal uses as LSD. These uses include treating the excruciating condition known as cluster headaches and alleviating the anxiety of the terminally ill. Just as LSD has proven beneficial in some studies for treating alcoholism, so has psilocybin, and the latter has also recently been used to assist cigarette smokers in quitting.
A recent study by researchers at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine provides new evidence of the psychiatric potential of psychedelic drugs in general. Over 25,000 subjects were studied from 2002 to 2007, all of whom were convicts enrolled in a program for individuals with a history of drug abuse. The study results suggest a link between personal history of psychedelic use and success in completing the treatment program, as well as lower rates of recidivism. Namely, those who had been diagnosed with a “hallucinogen use disorder,” about 1 percent of subjects, were “less likely to violate [the program’s] rules or other legal requirements, less likely to fail to appear in court, and less likely to be incarcerated.”
One widely-known experiment directed by Timothy Leary in the 1960s reached similar conclusions about the effect of psilocybin on recidivism in prisoners. A follow-up study in 1998, though, concluded that “claims of a treatment effect were erroneous.” The more recent study, unlike the earlier research, does not claim to show causation, but only indicates a correlation.
Modern therapists such as Andrew Feldmár testify to the power of LSD to change basic personality traits. The claim is that the drug can temporarily eliminate the ego in sufficiently high doses, causing a religious experience and leading to a fundamental shift in attitude. The same claim has been made about psilocybin, and there is both older and more recent research supporting this. This is especially notable since it is otherwise generally accepted that these traits will remain essentially the same over a person’s lifetime.
Psilocybin and LSD continue to be relatively popular even outside of a medical context. A recent study estimated that 32 million Americans had used at least one of three related psychedelics at some point in their lives. This included 23 million for LSD specifically and 21 million for psilocybin. The researchers concluded that “Overall rates of lifetime psychedelic use are roughly the same” between young adults and members of the “baby boomer” generation, and that use of psilocybin mushrooms has actually increased since the 1970s.
Albert Hofmann’s discoveries, despite legal prohibitions, apparently continue to enhance the lives of millions of people. Scientific study of their benefits is also very promising. The anniversary of Hofmann’s birth would be as good a time as any for governments to reexamine the bans on these valuable substances.
- Albert Hofmann, LSD: My Problem Child (Santa Cruz: Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, 2009), 47.
- Hofmann, 74.
- Ibid., 49-50
- When consumed by humans, psilocybin is simply broken down into psilocin before reaching the brain. However, psilocybin is more stable than psilocin, so the relevant research has simply used psilocybin.
- Hofmann, 124-125.
- Ibid., 128.
Parts of this article were previously published on The Libertarian at http://the-libertarian.co.uk.